News that elder statesman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is returning from a high-level diplomatic posting in Geneva to step into Kazakhstan’s second most important job, constitutionally speaking, has sparked renewed talk about who will succeed the long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
On October 16 Tokayev was approved as speaker of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, Novosti-Kazakhstan reports, in a unanimous vote by the rubber-stamp body. Nazarbayev put Tokayev up for the key position after sending his predecessor, Kayrat Mami, to the Supreme Court as chairman.
The role of Senate speaker is crucial because, under the constitution, this is the person who steps in to assume the reins of power should the president become incapacitated.
As Nazarbayev ages (he turned 73 in July), speculation has mounted about his succession strategy – or absence of one. Analyst Dosym Satpayev told EurasiaNet.org last year that the lack of an obvious strategy to install a successor is fraught with political risks, including the possibility of a destabilizing power struggle if Nazarbayev falls seriously ill or dies in office.
Having a safe pair of hands running the Senate is vital for the movers and shakers in Astana as they mull a strategy to hand over power in the years ahead – and Tokayev is certainly a trusted loyalist. He has served as Senate speaker before, and also has been Kazakhstan’s prime minister and foreign minister.
Since the infamous comic character Borat burst onto the world stage seven years ago, Central Asian states have had trouble shedding their images as tinpot dictatorships run by vainglorious, venal leaders.
Kazakhstan, the fictional home of Borat, has since spent millions on PR buffing its image. So news that a TV series lampooning the Central Asian states à la Borat – with some uncomfortable parallels to the truth – is about to air in the UK will come as an unwelcome shock.
As The Independent reports, the show Ambassadors, airing on the BBC2 channel from late October, is set in the fictional country Tazbekistan, a hybrid of the real-life Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
“The fictional Tazbekistan is run by the dictatorial President Kairat who presides over a regime with a dubious human rights record,” reports the newspaper, a description that will sound familiar (albeit perhaps not amusing) to the inhabitants of the Central Asian states.
The authoritarian leaders of real-life Tajikistan (Emomali Rahmon), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev) may not take kindly to this depiction – and they may be surprised to learn that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has assisted in the program’s making.
The series's writers spent time at the British Embassy in Astana and were given access to other diplomats to learn about the realities of the diplomatic lifestyle.
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
A member of Kazakhstan’s parliament has called for a new law banning “homosexual relations,” upping the ante in the homophobic rhetoric that erupts from time to time in the legislature.
Deputy Bakhytbek Smagul urged Kazakhstan to follow the lead of countries that criminalize homosexuality and draw up a bill to “root out homosexual relations,” and ban anything perceived to promote homosexuality (following Russia’s lead).
The arguments put forward by Smagul – who sits in parliament for the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – were convoluted, touching on family values, demographics, and the “national mentality,” before invoking the ancient cultures of Central Asia and Kazakhstan’s location in a “strategic region.”
“It is obvious that when the Kazakhstani national ideology is being shaped we cannot look at the future of the nation outside the family,” Smagul told parliament on October 2 in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“However, it is worth pondering what the level of development of the institution of the family will be in a country if such homosexual relations are openly advocated. In Central Asia, where ancient cultures intersect, and [in Kazakhstan,] as a state that is an active member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, this phenomenon damages the image of our country and its domestic policy.”
Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
Presidents of CSTO member states (except Kazakhstan, which sent its prime minister) at the CSTO summit in Sochi. (photo: CSTO)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held its annual summit in Sochi, Russia, on Monday and the hottest topic (other than Syria) was how to strengthen the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The group, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved to "provide additional collective assistance to Tajikistan to reinforce its national border with Afghanistan." The aid will include "constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar," said Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the event.
According to the official CSTO statement, "On the basis of a request from Tajikistan the member states of the CSTO will, according to their abilities, within three months render military-technical assistance to the border forces of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan." Interestingly, the aid package appears not to include Russian troops, which no doubt the Russian side was pushing for. Russia has been pushing the CSTO as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave the country starting next year. Said Putin:
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan in light of the international coalition’s troop withdrawal planned for 2014. Unfortunately, there is reason to expect a considerable rise in Afghan drug trafficking activity and in terrorist groups’ activeness.
Extremists are already attempting to spread their activity into neighbouring countries, including the Central Asian countries that are CSTO members.
Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
One of Kazakhstan’s few remaining opposition leaders has announced that he is quitting politics, a move that comes amid Astana’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and leaves a dearth of dissenting voices in the country.
Bolat Abilov said in a statement quoted by Tengri News on September 19 that he had taken the “difficult decision” to leave politics (at least for a few years) and concentrate on media, movie and book projects around Kazakhstan.
Abilov, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, had been head of the Azat (Freedom) party, which was in a prickly alliance with the OSDP social democrats. That union collapsed earlier this year amid much acrimony, with OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay falling out publicly with his deputy, Amirzhan Kosanov, leaving the party in tatters.
Abilov’s departure from politics and the collapse of the OSDP Azat alliance mean that Kazakhstan now has no genuine, functioning opposition parties to take on the difficult job of holding President Nursultan Nazarbayev to account.
The opposition has always struggled to operate in Kazakhstan’s restrictive environment, where it is shut out of the rubber-stamp parliament and has little access to mainstream media, but until a couple of years ago it was given limited room for maneuver.
All that changed after a bout of fatal unrest in December 2011, when an oil strike in the western town of Zhanaozen turned violent and 15 people died in clashes with the security forces.
Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence service has declared that it has foiled a terror plot with links reaching into Syria, which allegedly provided a training ground for three suspects now under arrest.
The State National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) said in a statement on September 16 that it detained the three – two citizens of Kyrgyzstan and one of neighboring Kazakhstan – in late August in the southern city of Osh. The GKNB pointed out, with its typical dearth of detail, that the arrests happened in the run-up to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek on September 13, but did not say why it is only now revealing the plot.
The GKNB said the three are members of Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. The group was sent from Syria, where it had been fighting on the side of the rebels in the civil war, to Kyrgyzstan to commit “acts of sabotage and terrorism” in Bishkek and Osh, the GKNB said.
Two of the suspects were named by media as Sardor Rakhmonov and Mazhit Abdullayev, originally of Osh. The citizen of Kazakhstan – who has not been identified – has testified that the three trained in a militant camp in Syria, Tengri News reported, quoting the GKNB’s press service.
Kazakhstan's love-struck Romeos have a new way to demonstrate their affections. A romantic not content with mere flowers and chocolates can now order a mock attack that makes his loved one feel threatened – and then step in to save his damsel in distress.
“It’s a question of staged attacks during which the man, supposedly defending his girl, repels the bandits and becomes the hero,” reports Tengri News.
The Cupid behind the scenes is Almaty student Alan Temirbayev. He was inspired after impressing his girlfriend with his macho style during a real-life assault two years ago.
“We have special effects, shots, whatever you want can be done,” the brains of the operation said. “It’s essential to make it all look natural, so that the girl is frightened and the guy sees them all off.”
Temirbayev says the business is a hobby rather than a money-spinner: He charges $50-$300 to stage one of the 15 attack scenarios in his repertoire. So far he has carried out 15 mock attacks in Almaty, mostly for students. But his clients have also included schoolchildren and men over 30. He says word has spread through social networks and the “bush telegraph.”
The enterprising student puts the popularity of his scheme down to its originality. “It’s not about giving flowers or an expensive telephone – this is a real action,” Temirbayev enthused, apparently without irony.